When panhandlers attack

Who needs legislation when you've got this handy guide?

click to enlarge AT LEAST HE'S HONEST: A Tampa homeless man holds his sign on a Sligh Avenue off-ramp. - Dawn Morgan
Dawn Morgan
AT LEAST HE'S HONEST: A Tampa homeless man holds his sign on a Sligh Avenue off-ramp.

Last week, St. Petersburg City Council tackled one of the most pressing issues facing the downtown area.

No, not violent crime or affordable housing or high rents pricing out independent businesses. In a unanimous vote, the City Council passed an expanded anti-panhandling ordinance that bans begging around most of St. Pete's tourist attractions, stretching roughly from the Vinoy to First Avenue South and west toward the Holocaust Museum. (Limits on panhandling already included much of the waterfront as well as begging at night or around ATMs, bus stops or private property.)

"You can't sit down and eat in this town without being interrupted," complained business owner Daniel O'Brien, standing outside of the city's council chambers after the vote. Other concerned citizens also voiced complaints about a problem that has gotten worse as downtown gains in popularity.

This action follows a post-Christmas crackdown on panhandlers in Ybor City when Tampa police netted 23. TPD promises more sweeps in the coming weeks.

The crackdowns will likely have a limited effect, as other cities across the nation have found when passing anti-panhandling laws. Without the steady income from begging, many bums aren't able to pay their fines, so they soon earn warrants and clog the jails. And the revised ordinance won't affect those men and women you see on interstate off-ramps. According to City Attorney John Wolfe, the city cannot completely outlaw panhandling, because it is protected speech.

There's also the issue of enforcement. Tampa and St. Pete statutes require officers to witness begging before issuing a citation. Which is why Mayor Rick Baker told the public to call our under-staffed police force "immediately" when someone asks you for a dime or dollar. Forget about the Christmas shootings at Baywalk; we're talking about our right not to be annoyed by strangers!

Just like everyone else who has visited downtown, I've been approached by ragged, smelly characters asking for money like some crazed telemarketers. Personally, I find the whole dance fairly amusing. And I know I never have to part with anything I don't want to give.

Throwing the homeless in jail won't solve the problem. As long as people are willing to give money to street dwellers, some scruffy hobo will continue to ask for spare change. And by legislating them out of our public spaces, we run the risk of creating a hostile environment for street performers and the non-panhandling homeless. Eventually, the hysterical actions of annoyed downtown business owners, outraged condo dwellers and martini-drunk tourists will ensure our city becomes a sterile bubble of order and predictability.

The best defense against a panhandler is not the police but education. As downtown worker Jeanny Roney told me last week, "Nine times out of 10, people give to the homeless because they're scared or intimidated."

With this guide, you can identify the many types of panhandlers, unravel their complicated (and persuasive) tales of woe and leave downtown with a few more bucks in your pocket after a night downtown.

For best results, clip this guide and refer to it in your treacherous journeys through our urban jungle to, you know, Starbucks.

The Freeloading Ne'er-do-well

Habitat: Downtown St. Pete and Ybor City; most everywhere street denizens hang out

Physical Traits: Stereotypical bum affect, but with out-stretched hands.

The Hustle: This panhandler has several strategies, all based around asking you for something that seems so necessary you can't possibly say "no," i.e. food, bus fare or money for shelter. Once, at Baywalk, a man even asked me for baby formula, insisting he needed a special non-lactose brand that only he could find.

Best Defense: Always carry baby formula.

The Median Mendicant

Habitat: Interstate off-ramps; busy intersection medians.

Physical Traits: Scruffy, weather-beaten; holding cardboard signs like "God Bless" or "Will Work for Food."

The Hustle: By standing in the sun looking weary, these beggars attempt to tug your heartstrings. Watching them from your four-door sedan, you think, "Gee, standing out here for eight years a day in the sweltering heat is so much harder than my air-conditioned cubicle job where I look up Internet porn all day. Maybe they deserve a freakin' dollar."

Best Defense: Don't fall for it! Avert your eyes, and pretend to be busy plucking out your nose hairs. Try to avoid the sign-carrying peaceniks also standing on the corner when you peel out.

The (For-Profit) Good Samaritan

Habitat: Bus stations, tourist attractions

Physical Traits: Not immediately identifiable as homeless; reasonably dressed with comfortable sneakers.

The Hustle: These con artists have moved from cities like New York City or Atlanta, offering to "help" unsuspecting tourists locate a nearby destination spot. Once you reach your destination, they ask for a little (monetary) help themselves.

Best Defense: When approached, casually mention you're in town for a police convention and ask where the nearest police station is located.

The Shopping Cart Salesman

Habitat: Primarily low-income neighborhoods like St. Pete's midtown.

Physical Traits: Always wearing a heavy coat, even in summer; pushes shopping cart full of hubcaps, bicycle parts and old radios.

The Hustle: These bums pass themselves off as door-to-door salesmen, doing you a favor by personally delivering used bars of soap and broken watches. They always have a great "deal." Beware: once you buy, they'll keep coming back with progressively more appealing, expensive merchandise, most likely stolen from your house.

Best Defense: "Do you take plastic?"

The Aggressive Vagabond

Habitat: The round bench outside of Jannus Landing in St. Pete.

Physical Traits: Resembles an older, fatter, unkempt frat boy.

The Hustle: "Hey man, got a dollar? No? What? What do you need a dollar for, man? I'm homeless! Fuck you!"

Best Defense: Ignore it. And wait for said man to appear on the latest Bum Fights DVD.

The Hustler with the Perpetually Broken Car

Habitat: Fringes of downtown St. Pete or Ybor City; neighborhoods

Physical Traits: Relatively clean-cut and doe-eyed; possible crocodile tears.

The Hustle: "Hey, don't be afraid," the unusually large man will call out as he approaches. "I'm not going to hurt you." He proceeds to weave a tale about his disabled station wagon and stranded family. The tow truck is coming, he says, but they don't accept credit cards this late at night. "Can I get $30?" he asks. "I got the money. Give me your address and I'll mail it back to you tomorrow."

Best Defense: "Aw man, the same thing happened to me! How about we go in on the tow truck together?"

The Spanger

Habitat: Outside music venues like Jannus Landing or Crowbar.

Physical Traits: Young teen wearing jean jackets covered with Misfits patches and spikes; mohawk; lobe-stretching plugs; occasional flea-bitten dog.

The Hustle: These drifting street kids just simply ask for money and hope their good looks and youthful demeanor inspire you to empty your pockets.

Best Defense: "Is that a clove cigarette you're smoking?"

The Honest Beggar

Habitat: High traffic nightlife areas; interstate off-ramps

Physical Traits: Typical homeless look with signs like "Need money for beer" and "Fed up with working, please help."

The Hustle: These panhandlers try to trick you by not tricking you. They know if they ask for food, you'll point them to St. Vincent's. So they cut right to the chase. It's the fast-food line of panhandling.

Best Defense: Go ahead and give them some money. At least this panhandler fulfills all your stereotypes about the homeless and makes you feel better for being the self-righteous asshole that you are. That's worth a beer, right?

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